SYT offers tasty cuts to get your teeth into

30th July 2004 at 01:00
Scottish Youth Theatre Summer Festival

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Citizens Theatre, Glasgow tel 0141 429 0022

Fairy TaleTramway, Glasgow, tel 0845 330 3501

all three productions end tomorrow

As soon as the summer term ends, hundreds of school and college students, and not all of them from Scotland, converge in rehearsal rooms in Glasgow, Edinburgh and (this year) Peebles for the Scottish Youth Theatre courses.

They offer up to five weeks of intensive work and creativity, and it is small wonder that so many find them a life-changing experience.

Much of the work in the two-week beginners' courses is just for the participants and their families but the seniors go public at the end of their five-week performance and production course with three productions at Glasgow's Citizens and Tramway theatres.

First out from behind the curtains was Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a score and lyrics generally reckoned to be the best of Stephen Sondheim's work, maybe because the vengeful, secretive Todd mirrored aspects of the composer's own character. Mary McCluskey chooses to give it the chamber rather than opera house treatment, putting it in the smoky confines of the Circle Studio at the Citizens, bringing the horror close to the audience in the crowded intimacy of 19th-century London.

Her direction is characterised by the contrasting virtues of discipline and absorption and even in this extreme black comedy of serial murder and cannibalism, the young cast display these qualities in abundance; not least the ladies of the chorus, with their wild hair, rouged cheeks and staring eyes, barefoot in their hooped petticoats. They play the inmates of the asylum, the customers of the pie shop and the Furies of the barber's abattoir. The young men, in their mental hospital pyjamas, can hardly compete.

Amazingly, both the excellent leads are 17 year olds. Katrina Innes (of Aberdeen) is a most beguiling Mrs Lovett, full of maternal affection for the confused Jonas (Gareth Bell-Cairns) and is lip-smackingly malicious as she reveals her plans for what the Papuans used to call long pig. All credit, too, to Dougie Greig (of Linlithgow) as the demon barber, generating huge internal rage against the world and its ways, and giving the opera the hard centre its macabre humour needs.

The intimacy of the Circle Studio ensures not a word is lost against the recorded soundtrack, though the pitch and intervals of Sondheim's score makes demands on more experienced singers than these. Maybe the happiest choice was for Citizens designer Kenny Miller to make the most of the narrow space. For the old guard of the theatre, seeing blood splatter the walls was like old times.

With their eight performances virtually a sell-out, the cast were in good spirits the following evening to see some of their colleagues in the premi re of Fairy Tale.

For the second successive year, the SYT has risked staging a devised piece, created and improvised by the members of the company. It is an exercise familiar to drama teachers and increasingly so in theatre. Mike Leigh's success with Abigail's Party has helped to make it almost standard practice for writers to work with actors in polishing, if not generating, a text.

In the professional theatre the process can take months, if not years, so Carter Ferguson, as director and designer, with only weeks at his disposal, was probably wise to have an idea or two in his mind before he met his collaborators. The crucial interplay between leader and contributors in the rehearsal room is known only to them and the performance is only the shining tip of the iceberg of ideas, the sharing, the thousand moments that make up a course of this kind.

What the audience sees is an inventive exploration of something obviously close to the hearts and minds of the company. The desolating loss or, more likely, abduction of a younger sister becomes a nightmarish game of hide and seek as the girl is hunted through a world peopled by the inverted icons of the child's imaginative world: the nursery story, the fairy tale and the pop song, where the three little pigs are muggers, the young heroines auld, chain-smoking wifies, and all the sisters ugly.

Scottish Youth Theatre, tel 0141 221 5127

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